Pardons allow new start, applicants say

The Parole Board of Canada is proposing to more than triple the cost of obtaining pardons, putting them out of reach for many, who can't get work without them, advocates say.
Nadine Reid talks about the importance of a pardon. 5:07

She sits staring uncomfortably into the television camera, but Nadine Reid is determined to tell her story.

"I'm already apprehensive about doing this interview with you because you don't know what people are thinking," said the 36-year-old single mother. "People could see this and say, 'Hey, you're the girl that was on CBC and we're not hiring you because you have a criminal record.'"

Getting a job has been tough, in large part because Reid has a criminal record for theft, for which she has not been pardoned.

It's a question that comes up on some job applications, which ask about "any charges for which you have not been pardoned,"  Reid said. "So it's a big deal. Not having a pardon is a big deal. My past is not my past."

Unwittingly, Reid and the other 4.2 million people in Canada who have criminal records have become the centre of a national debate over pardons. Specifically, the debate is about the cost of a pardon and who should pay it.

'Cost-recovery basis'

The Parole Board of Canada wants to raise the fee to obtain a pardon — to more than $600 from $150. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says he supports the principle of making people pay the full cost.

"We believe that ordinary Canadians shouldn't be having to foot the bill for a criminal asking for pardon," he told reporters recently. "The criminal should be paying for those pardons on a cost-recovery basis."

But opponents of the heftier fees say the issue is about more than dollars and cents. Organizations that advocate for prisoners and businesses that help people process pardon applications, say most individuals applying for pardons live on low incomes, either collecting social assistance or working at minimum-wage jobs.

Paying almost an additional $500 is out of reach for many, the advocates argue.

Toews conceded that cost and the inability of some to pay are legitimate factors, which is why the Parole Board of Canada held public consultations in February.

Breaking the cycle

The first time she was charged with stealing, Reid was fined and served a sentence on weekends, which still allowed her to take care of her son. Then about five years later, she got caught again. By then, she was the mother of two boys and once again did her time on weekends.

She stole clothes, hats and running shoes for her sons.

More than four million Canadians have criminal records. (CBC)
"Everybody likes to get new stuff or get stuff for their children," she said, struggling to recall the details of events she would rather forget. "You like what you see on your child's face when you give them something new. It was just a matter that I didn't have the money, and old habits do die hard. I wanted it. And I took it."

But Reid knew she couldn't go on stealing. She had to break the habits that had dogged her since her teens, when theft landed her in group homes.

"Just the feeling of being so embarrassed and realizing that there's more to life than to keep going through the system. I had to break the cycle."

Reid enrolled in a business program and earned an accounting diploma. She vowed to get off social assistance and find work. But it's tough for someone with a criminal record to get a job, much less keep it, especially when the work involves handling finances and the crime for which you were charged was stealing.

Reid recalled working full time for a company where things went well and her boss liked her. Fortunately, the company didn't check her criminal history when she applied.

But then something happened at work, and management decided to do background checks on everyone, Reid said. Her past came back to "bite her in the butt," and she was fired, though the decision was not easy for her boss.

"She looked very upset to give me the news. And she asked me what it was, if I minded telling her. We spoke briefly and actually got teary-eyed about the situation."

Despite the tears, there was no going back. So Reid decided to apply for a pardon, a long process involving hundreds of dollars in expenses in addition to the $150 administrative fee the Parole Board of Canada now charges.

4.2 million Canadians have records: RCMP

According to the RCMP, 4.2 million people in Canada have criminal records. The parole board, RCMP and Department of Justice do not keep statistics, but spokespeople at those institutions say that only a very small percentage of people apply for pardons, in many instances because they have no choice.

Suzanne's story

(Audio: Hear from Suzanne Seguin)

In February, Canadians were asked to tell the Parole Board of Canada what they thought of quadrupling the price of a pardon. The board said the additional money is needed to cover increased screening costs.

When CBC News covered the first day of consultations, dozens of people said the higher cost will make it impossible for them to get a pardon.

Suzanne Seguin was arrested for drunk driving in 2005. 

"I don't remember too much about it," she said in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment in an Ottawa suburb.

She was angry after a fight her with boyfriend and was only seconds from his house when she drove off the road.

"It was a horrible time in my life," Seguin said. "The shame and the guilt. I'm supposed to be my son's role model"

People with drunk-driving records can't get pardons until they've done their time and stayed trouble-free for at least three years. At that point, they can apply to the parole board for a pardon, something that is necessary in order to travel, find housing or work.

"I've been sober now a little over two years," Seguin said proudly. "You should not drink and drive. You're just not in your right frame of mind."

Seguin would like a pardon so she can work at least part time. But the $631 price is too much for someone struggling on social assistance.

"It's something that weighs on my mind. It saddens me, deeply. I just don't have that extra money … and I don't have anyone else to help me."

A person may need a pardon for housing, crossing the border into the U.S., or in Nadine Reid's case, getting a job. In fact, many employers ask on application forms if the person has committed a crime for which they have not been pardoned.

Reid is still waiting to hear about her pardon, applied for under the old fee, so she takes a chance of getting fired if employers do criminal background checks.

It's that constant fear that makes her nervous about sharing her story, a tale she's determined people must hear. 

Nadine argues that politicians like Vic Toews should not make it harder for people who commit offences such as theft to get pardons.

According to an CBC News analysis  of the parole board's data, most pardons are given to individuals who commit non-violent offences, including theft, which came third on the list of offences that have earned pardons from the fiscal years 2000-2001 to 2009-2010.

To apply, individuals must have served their sentences or paid their fines, and lived crime-free for three, five or 10 years, depending on the severity of the offence, and they must pay the application fee.

The parole board already increased its pardon fee to $150 from $50 this past December. It's proposed the additional increase because of the government's move to tighten the pardons process after convicted sex offender Graham James was issued a pardon.

The Harper government wants the parole board to allow fewer pardon applications and spend more time on each application. The board conducted a detailed cost breakdown, which it submitted to Toews. The increased administrative cost was estimated at $631.

The parole board is not making public the report that contains that cost breakdown and the rationale for it. During the board's online consultations, people had access to a document that contained only a general rationale for the increased cost.

Reid said that if the cost goes up before her pardon is processed, she'll have to find the money. But she prefers not to think about that. Instead, she dreams of the day when she'll be able to apply for jobs without worrying about employers finding out about offences committed when she was young.

"There was a time when I didn't think that I would live to see tomorrow. Tomorrow didn't matter. There is hope. You have to make that change."

If you have views about pardons or stories you want to share, please feel free to contact David McKie at david_mckie@cbc.ca